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Artifact of the Month

January 2010

Buffalo Coat and Gloves


The January “Artifact of the Month” at the Western Illinois Museum is a Buffalo Coat and pair of matching gloves said to have been worn over 100 years ago.  Used by the ancestor of an Astoria resident, this coat was worn by a soldier during the Indian Wars in the American West.  Stationed at a fort, the soldier was issued this buffalo coat and gloves during the winter to help make sure he would keep warm in the sub-zero temperatures of blizzards howling across the plains.


Donated by Mrs. Ida (Robert) Clanin to the Western Illinois Museum in 1984, the coat and gloves had been in the Clanin family for many years.   Bob Clanin, son of Ida and Robert, grew up in Astoria, but now lives in California, and he remembers seeing the buffalo coat and gloves at his grandfather’s house. 

Clanin family history tells of the coat being handed down father to son, generation to generation.  Originally, the coat and gloves belonged to Robert Clanin’s great-grandfather, Edward Clanin, who was born in 1813 and died in 1894.  Edward Clanin is buried with his wife, Maria in the New Ipava, Fulton County, Cemetery. 

According to Bob Clanin, the story he heard as a child about the coat was that it came from a time when his great-great-grandfather had been a soldier in the US Army and fought in the Indian Wars.

At this time it has not been definitely determined whether Edward Clanin served in the US Army or whether this particular coat actually is Army issue.  However, it is documented that the US Army issued buffalo coats to soldiers stationed in the frigid prairie during the winter.  From the Report of the Secretary of War, 1881, Quartermaster’s Dept., “For troops in severe climates buffalo coats, fur caps and gloves, and arctic overshoes are supplied by the United States.”


Constructed to protect the wearer from extreme cold, this coat features many design elements purposefully planned for ultimate protection from arctic conditions.   From shoulder to bottom of the hem, the coat measures 50 inches long.  Buffalo have a shaggy, long, dark brown winter coat, and a lighter weight, lighter brown summer coat. The best-looking and warmest coats are made from the winter coat. On this coat there is curly black fur on the turn-up shawl collar, ensuring the wearer’s neck is totally covered and protected from icy wind. 


Covered with thick, long, luxuriant black/brown buffalo hair, the rest of the coat has in some spots hair reaching a length of almost 3 inches long.  Five black toggle buttons with frog braid trim line each side of the coat opening, when buttoned up the toggles overlap, ensuring that the coat is tightly closed and no freezing wind can get inside.  Two deep, deerskin lined, v-shaped pockets on the front of the coat near the chest area provide a warm spot for cold hands.  Lined with black quilted cloth with a zigzag pattern, the lining gives the coat a double layer of warmth.  Deeply inset sleeve cuffs with a ribbed wristband cut off chilly air from getting up into the sleeve.  To prevent fraying and tearing, the split bottom hem of the coat is edged on the inside with black leather. 


As equally shaggy as the coat are the matching gloves measuring 15 ½ inches long from the tip of the index finger to the edge of the cuff and with the widest part of the bottom of the cuff at 12 inches wide. With such a huge glove cuff, seemingly the gloves were designed to fit over the bulky sleeves of the matching coat. Lined with wide-wale brown corduroy on the interior edging of the glove cuff and with palms and fingers of deerskin, these gloves have features designed for maximum warmth, but also for dexterity.


To be exact, the correct name for the buffalo is the American Bison.  Symbolically and literally, these great animals are a part of the history of our nation.  Most Americans are familiar with the significance of the buffalo in the history of the west.  Native Americans of the plains hunted and utilized every part of the buffalo from meat and hide, to hoof and horn.  Wearing the hides as robes for warmth during the winter was common for the Plains Indians.  Extremely important to their way of life, to the Plains Indians the buffalo herds were their ‘staff of life’, their most important natural resource.


When whites arrived in the west, it has been estimated that there may have been between 16 to 50 million buffalo.  As whites began to expand into the west with the railroad and pioneers, buffalo hunting became an industry.  By 1899, the American bison was hunted almost to extinction with less than 1,000 left.   Some reports indicate some 2,000 to 10,000 buffalo were killed a day during the height of the hunting season. 


Whites hunted the buffalo mostly just for their hides, the rest of the buffalo was often left to rot.   There was a huge market for buffalo hides for clothing and for export to Europe.  For a time, the US Army was a large purchaser of buffalo hides for use as coats.  Eventually, the Army had so many buffalo coats lying around; they had to do something with them.  From the War Department Annual Report of 1912, Vol. 1 “… on hand at the Omaha depot on July 11, 1911, 4,464 buffalo overcoats, which were purchased at a time when the buffalo existed in great numbers and were issued to and worn by troops during the several Indian campaigns in the Northwest up to 1891.  Since that time the department has carefully preserved and stored these coats.” In 1911, 294 coats were sold, but the sale was discontinued when it was decided that troops stationed in Alaska could use the coats. 


When hearing about buffalo coats and the US Army some people might think about the Buffalo Soldiers.   Buffalo Soldiers was the nickname given to African American troops in the 9th ,10th , 27th and 28th Cavalry regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments,  all stationed in forts throughout the west during the 19th century.  Various theories offer possible explanations for the Buffalo Soldiers nickname.  Some say the Indians compared the hair of the African American soldiers to the shaggy, curly black hair of the buffalo.  Others theorize that the Indians saw the dark-skinned soldiers in their long buffalo coats and made the obvious parallel, calling them Buffalo Soldiers.  Whatever theory might be correct as to why Buffalo Soldiers got their nickname, it can be conclusively proven that they indeed wore buffalo coats, because there is a famous historical photograph of Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Keogh in Montana, ca. 1890, wearing buffalo coats.


Luckily, before all the buffalo were killed in organized hunts by white hunters, a few individuals decided not to let the buffalo become extinct and made efforts to protect and preserve them.  Currently, the American Bison population is estimated at 350,000. Unfortunately, most current herds are genetically polluted or partly crossbred with cattle and there are very few pure bison herds left in the United States.   Many buffalo are now being raised commercially for meat and hides, it is possible to purchase buffalo burgers and for a steep price, a modern day buffalo coat today.


Having a buffalo coat and gloves in its collection shows the remarkable variety of artifacts held at The Western Illinois Museum.  Ordinarily, most people would not think buffaloes and western Illinois belong together in the same thought, yet because of the museum, this region has its own buffalo coat.  Because the ancestor of a current area resident was once out in the Wild West, a buffalo coat found its way to being preserved at the museum.  Residents of this region who donate items to the museum share their unique family heritage with the county and its visitors.  By sharing their history, those who donate historical artifacts enrich all of our lives and ensure that local history is preserved.


From an essay by Heather Munro